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The Fight Over Gay Rights

As gay students push for official recognition, they encounter tougher resistance.

Newsweek On Campus, May 1984

When Stanford announced plans to install, a lifelike, life-size bronze sculpture called "Gay Liberation" on a campus mall last winter, there seemed little reason to expect any trouble. The work itself was far from inflammatory: it showed two homosexual couples, a man standing with his hand on another man's shoulder and a seated woman with her hand on another's knee. The sculpture had been created by George Segal, one of America's best-known artists, and approved by Stanford president Donald Kennedy and two university committees. Stanford is known to be as tolerant of gays as most schools, and more so than many; it has a well-established advocacy group, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance at Stanford. "Gay Liberation" was unveiled without incident on Feb. 21. Then, on the night of March 6, someone attacked the statues with a ball-peen hammer. The vandal struck the figures about 40 times, gashing their faces and torsos and causing an estimated $50,000 worth of damage. The next day the sculpture was removed from the mall and placed in storage.

The assault sent a chill through the gay community at Stanford and shocked much of gay America as well. That it could have happened on the "liberal" Stanford campus, hard by the huge gay community of San Francisco, seemed only to underscore the precarious position of the gay-rights movement in 1984. Fifteen years after New York homosexuals fought back against a police raid at a bar called The Stonewall -- marking the start of a new cause -- gay students find themselves tolerated but not fully accepted, out of the closet but not equal. Increasingly, gay leaders believe such tacit toleration is not good enough. Like feminists before them, many homosexuals now want to take their movement into the second stage -- beyond personal sufferance to political equality, beyond implicit promises to explicit guarantees of rights. And, at a time when few issues can galvanize the campus, these gay and lesbian activists have made themselves among the most visible -- and vocal -- of political groups.

But with increased political activity has come increased resistance. Administrators -- and the alumni who look over their shoulders -- are often hesitant about granting gay groups the official recognition they seek, fearing that it may be construed as an endorsement of a controversial lifestyle. Within the ranks of homosexual students, there are splits between men and women, and between activists and nonactivists. The continuing reluctance of the straight majority to actively support gay rights remains a major roadblock, and in some cases, acceptance seems to be dwindling. In a survey of Maryland freshmen last semester, for example, 70 percent said they would keep it a secret if they were homosexual. Ten years before, 65 percent had given the same answer.

Some of the current antigay sentiment can be attributed to the growing conservatism of college students; some can be traced to understandable confusion about sexual feelings among students trying to sort out their sexual identities. Some resistance also stems from the outright aversion that gays call homophobia. That attitude has surely been exacerbated by the recent epidemic of AIDS, the often fatal disease that afflicts male homosexuals in particular. Given these factors, "fag-bashing" sometimes seems to be newly respectable. At Berkeley, "Kill Faggots" graffiti are scrawled on bathroom walls; "AIDS-America's Ideal Death Sentence" is scribbled on a poster advertising a Stanford gay picnic. A gay group's float in last spring's Centennial Roundup Parade at the University of Texas was pelted with garbage, and homosexual students have reported being beaten up in their dorms at several other schools.

Most clashes remain strictly political however, and center on two key points: official recognition of gay groups, and adoption of nondiscrimination laws. Many gays won the recognition fight a decade ago, but a new generation is battling on other campuses. Recognition means money in the bank, a place to meet, permission to use the school's name-in short, legitimacy. The Gay and Lesbian Student Union at Maryland, for example, was recognized in 1970 and now sponsors dances, classes, movies and counseling services for its 130 or so regulars, using the $7,000 a year it gets from student-activity fees. Explicit statements that a school will not discriminate over sexual preference are seen as equally important by gay groups -- not only for students, but for faculty and staff as well. At least 40 schools have already adopted such statements, according to the National Gay Task Force; the State University of New York and University of California systems adopted theirs last year.

Opponents have several objections to such formal statements. Some administrators insist that explicit nondiscrimination clauses are simply not needed at their schools. "We do not discriminate," says Dean Henry Rosovsky of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which has rejected such a statement. Recognition and funding of on-campus gay-advocacy groups, others say, may antagonize the legislators who hold the purse strings of state schools. There is also an underlying concern that homosexual students -- who seldom make up more than 10 percent of a school's population by their own estimates -- are demanding a disproportionate amount of attention.

The battle lines over recognition can be very sharply drawn, as they have been at Southern Methodist University. SMU's Gay/Lesbian Student Support Organization has spent a year seeking an official stamp of approval from the student senate. GLSSO went before the senate three times but lost all three hotly contested votes -- one of them after the student-body vice president broke a 15-15 tie. SMU faculty say no issue since Vietnam has provoked so much controversy at the Dallas school, which is sometimes called "Camp Wonderland" for its affluent insularity. The debate has thundered from the pages of The Daily Campus to the Phil Donahue Show. "Rapists, robbers and thieves are human, too, but we don't have groups for them," a leading opponent declared at one heated senate hearing. More than half the student body opposes recognition, according to a poll taken last fall.

University president L. Donald Shields, who expressed cautious support for GLSSO about a year ago, later reversed himself, calling recognition "inconsistent with the goals, purposes, philosophy and religious heritage of SMU." (Ten Methodist bishops sit as trustees of the school, which is affiliated with the United Methodist church.) Some students believe that if the student senate should ever vote to recognize GLSSO, Shields will overrule its decision. Nevertheless, says Miriam Blake, who cochairs GLSSO with Paul Palmer, "We can't give up, we won't give up."

Gay recognition and religion have also clashed at Georgetown in Washington, D.C., where two gay groups have taken their campaign to the courts. The undergraduate Gay People of Georgetown University and the Law Center's Gay Rights Coalition filed suit in 1980 after the university denied them official status. Lawyers for the Jesuit-affiliated school argued that recognition would appear to condone homosexuality, in violation of Roman Catholic doctrine; the gays countered that refusal violated the strict antidiscrimination statutes of the District of Columbia. Seventeen members of the Law Center faculty filed as friends of the court on behalf of the gay groups. Support came from other quarters too: the student senate urged the administration to change its decision, and so did the two undergraduate dailies and the Law Center's Law Weekly. In October a D.C. superior court judge sided with the university. The two gay organizations are appealing.

Prolonged public hassles can turn a student population against the gays, undercutting what tentative support they have. That may have already happened at both SMU and at Georgetown: 71 percent of Georgetown students polled last December agreed with the school's opposition. And Georgetown's leading daily, the Hoya, recently withdrew its backing for recognition in an editorial headlined ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. The newspaper suggested it was time activists turned their attention away from litigation and toward the promotion of gay rights. That's also the position of the Rev. William McFadden, chairman of Georgetown's theology department. "The way gay people are treated is far more important than whether or not a gay group has the use of Georgetown's name, " he says.


Escaping the Faculty Closet

When English Prof. Ken Weeden made his homosexuality public in a letter to the Vassar student newspaper last fall, he had no intention of forging a new identity as a gay activist. But that's what eventually happened: gay students turned to the popular 43-year-old scholar for assistance in their successful campaign to introduce a non-discrimination policy at the school. Weeden joined the fight by pleading the case to two faculty committees. And now that he's been an effective lobbyist at Vassar, he intends to do what he can to see that other schools adopt similar policies. "I want this to happen anyplace it can," Weeden says.

Not many faculty members are quite so willing to come out and take up the cause. Most tend to stay closeted at least until they are tenured --as Weeden has been for eight years. "Promotion and tenure are incredibly political processes," says John Gonsiorek, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, who is gay. The career difficulties confronting gay activists are not surprising, according to English Prof. Peter Thorsley of UCLA, who has been openly gay and teaching at that university for 20 years. "Any department is likely to avoid hiring anybody who might rock the boat or otherwise embarrass them," says Thorsley, a former department chairman. "Probably the same thing would be true if the teacher was a radical feminist who always gave speeches and marched in demonstrations."

Conflicts: Once past the tenure hurdle, gay professors may choose to stay closeted out of simple inertia or fear of conflicts. "You never know what someone's father in the Midwest will do if he finds out his son has a gay professor," says a gay faculty member at Berkeley. Roy Dahl, a business lecturer at Maryland who is gay, observes, "Sure, there are laws that protect people. But the laws don't work."

Professors who are open about their sexuality among colleagues often have mixed feelings about declaring it to students. Says David Armstrong, a gay professor in the classics department at Texas: "I try to leave my students out of my private life. It has nothing to do with what I was hired for." Some gay professors, though, believe that student understanding of their sexual preference may sometimes be helpful in class discussions. When he was closeted, says Weeden of Vassar, he always felt "a little coy" discussing such matters as whether Marc Antony's masculinity was questionable in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra." "Now I feel no coyness at all," he says. "I make clear to the students my bias, and I think all students should know what their teacher's presumptions may be." Some professors also feel free to offer courses that deal specifically with homosexuality; such prominent gay authors as Christopher Isherwood have lectured in Thorsley's gay-literature course at UCLA.

Esteem: There is still another function that identifiably gay professors can fill: that of positive role model. "It must give gay and lesbian students a sense of self-esteem to know there are teachers like them," says Jacquelyn Zita, who teaches women's studies at Minnesota and is a lesbian. Just like straight professors, Weeden cautions, gay faculty must draw the line at sexual relationships with students -- and guard against any tendency to reward attractive undergraduates with better grades. But homosexual teachers must also worry about a quite different problem with their students. Zita, for example, came out three years ago. Since then, all the harassment she has felt has come not from administrators, but from straight students.

BILL BAROL with ERIC GODCHAUX in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., PETER KIZILOS in Minneapolis, Minn., and bureau reports.


The struggles over alleged discrimination take many forms. At the University of Michigan, members of Lesbian and Gay Rights on Campus (LAGROC) have been lobbying since 1982 for an explicit prohibition in the school's bylaws against discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. Demonstrators disrupted president Harold Shapiro's annual tea party last fall; another protest was staged by gay students wearing paper bags over their heads to prevent identification and possible retaliation. The administration has long contended that a bylaw change was not only unnecessary but could bar campus recruitment by the U.S. armed forces, since they refuse to accept avowed gays. After months of negotiations, Shapiro issued a nonbinding policy statement last month. It said the university would treat an "individual's sexual orientation" in the same way as age, sex and national origin in "educational and employment decisions." The president refused, however, to add the words "sexual orientation" to the affirmative-action logo that appears on all university-printed material.

Even at schools where the administration is supportive, nondiscrimination statements can be a touchy issue. Vassar's new policy will go on the books this fall, after an approval process that one supporter described as "lightning quick." In fact, the effort involved a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes work. There was concern that the statement might give off false signals," according to Vassar President Virginia Smith: "What if somebody asked you to sign a statement to the effect that you had stopped beating your wife, and you had never done it? Sexual discrimination is a nonissue here." The biggest problem was image. Some faculty and administrators were worried that adoption might reinforce the alleged reputation of the former women's college as a haven for male gays. To find out, the admissions office conducted a study on the effects such a clause might have on applications. Its finding: the impact would be "negligible." Two college committees then approved the statement. Trustees raised no objections, and president Smith made the final decision to approve.

Things haven't gone quite so smoothly, however, at another Seven Sisters school. Last fall, when gay activists demanded a nondiscrimination statement at Smith -- which remains a women's college -- president Jill Ker Conway turned them down flat. Conway also took great pains to reassure alumnae that the Smith Lesbian Alliance was not an all-powerful force. In the winter edition of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Conway wrote: "It was of no particular worry ... that there is a small lesbian minority on campus.... Many young women of lesbian orientation are struggling with personal uncertainties of profound dimensions. We try, in a very professional way, to make it possible for them to work this question out." President Conway has since declined further comment, saying she considers the issue overblown and the problems resolved. Members of the Lesbian Alliance don't see it that way, however. They charge that alumnae are pressuring the college to shut their movement down.

The Smith dispute illustrates one of the biggest barriers to political victories by homosexual students: opposition from influential outsiders. Not only alumni, but parents and trustees may object, fearing that the college could inadvertently add to the sexual pressures on students by appearing to approve of homosexuality. Trustees must also consider public opinion, says Regent Thomas Roach of Michigan -- and the public has not widely accepted homosexuality as a legitimate, alternative life-style. "I am concerned about what is appropriate for the university, legislators and the state of Michigan," Roach says. "Clearly, there is a large segment of the population that would be critical [of a nondiscrimination policy for gays]." Although he supports gay students' rights to do what they please in private, Roach says he is "not completely comfortable" with gay students in leadership roles, such as dormitory resident adviser.

Institutional resistance can come from inside a school as well. The record of student governments in backing recognition is spotty. Last year, during a controversy over military recruitment, the University of Pennsylvania's Undergraduate Assembly passed a resolution calling for the banning of recruiters who won't accept gays. But this year, after Lesbians and Gays at Penn filed a lawsuit to achieve the same end, the UA declined to give open support -- despite the fact that chairman Ken Myers personally backs the group. As an SMU senior, Homer Reynolds III says he favors recognition for GLSSO: as president of the student body he has voted against it twice in the student senate. "I have a responsibility to represent the consensus of the students," Reynolds says. "I believe strongly that the consensus at this time is overwhelmingly against recognition."


Telling the Gay Story

Photographer Leslie Miessner admits she had a moment's hesitation about appearing in the staff picture of her college newspaper last winter. She is on the staff of UCLA's Ten Percent. But she isn't gay-and the other staffers are. Miessner decided to get in the picture anyway, tripping the shutter at the last moment by remote control. The reaction to the photo around the Westwood campus? "No big deal," she says. "It blew over very quickly."

Being gay doesn't seem to be such a big deal at UCLA, and Ten Percent can take some of the credit for that. It has survived, if not thrived, since 1976, providing gay-oriented news and features to UCLA students six times a year. "We have a good image in the gay community," says editor Nick Bucci, a junior. "We have a reasonably scholarly look. We see no need to print pictures of semi-naked men. The gay ad business we could get if we did would give us more money. The downside is, we'd lose gay students that way."

Like most student publications, Ten Percent has had its troubles keeping insolvency at bay. The UCLA Communications Board even shut the paper down last spring because of allegedly sloppy financial management. "But we saw a show of unity," says Bucci. "About a hundred students showed up at a rally, and Comm Board gave us another chance. Today Ten Percent runs lean and smooth, sharing a computer system with the Daily Bruin and even paying Bucci a salary -- 25 cents an hour.

Although the paper isn't widely read outside the UCLA gay community, there are occasional breakthroughs to the larger audience. Last winter Bucci came across a straight student "openly reading it in daylight. Outside the men's gym, no less. He said he thought it was a good paper, that he had gay friends and was interested in the gay perspective." Bucci smiles. "That's what I want to accomplish -- to make people open enough to read it in the daylight and not worry about being called a faggot."

LEE GOLDBERG in Los Angeles


If forthright support for gay rights is the yardstick, Reynolds may be right. Individual resistance among straight students is the most basic stumbling block of all. For most straights the issues are abstract at best; if they notice gays at all, it is often with amusement or annoyance. Many are bothered when gays make a political issue out of their sexuality. "I don't know why they make so much fuss out of something that should only be talked about in private," says one Harvard junior. Says Greg Prokopowicz, a gay activist at Michigan, "A common attitude is, 'I don't tell you I'm heterosexual, so don't tell me you're homosexual'." Even some gays are uncomfortable with the idea that sexual preference should be a matter of public debate. Says "Mike," a student at Texas, "GLSA wants to yell in people's faces, 'I'm gay, look at me!' That's not the way to convince people of anything. I'd rather be a student who is gay than a gay who is a student."

Gay students often divide by gender as well. Although the major gay group at Minnesota is called the University Lesbian/Gay Community, it has no dues-paying female members. "We have different issues than the men, a different subculture, different lifestyles," says Kellie Jones, who is active in another group called University Lesbians. Some lesbians complain that male gays fail to appreciate the twin burdens -- being gay and female -- borne by lesbians. "A lot of the gay men I know here are really interested in good sex and pretty clothes, and they're not very feminist," says Phoebe McKinney of Vassar. "They drive me nuts."

Closeted gays, of course, are exceedingly wary about identifying with the cause. The reason is simple: it is often less painful to stay in the closet than to come out. The social climate is chilly at best on college campuses; occasionally it is downright hostile. Where it's possible to do so, many gay students prefer to live off campus -- in houses, apartments or university co-ops -- since dorm life is a particular problem. "It's like living in a fishbowl," says Jane, a Texas lesbian who has lived in the dorms for three years because it is less expensive and more convenient than renting an apartment. "Everyone knows what everyone else is doing all the time. It's hard not to let them see that other part of me." There is harassment, sometimes relatively harmless: Lee Klement, a sophomore at Minnesota, recalls that when his first-year roommate realized Klement was gay, he placed a toilet-paper line across the floor and suggested that each of them stay on his own side. Sometimes harassment takes an uglier turn. Carmen Garland of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance at Ohio State says that at least one homosexual student has been beaten up in the dorms each of the last three years.

Given the day-to-day pressures, relatively few gays choose to both come out and stay put in the dorm. Wes, a Texas senior, is one of the few who also fought back. After a friend heard someone make a crack about how Wes should be listening to the gay-oriented Village People on his stereo, Wes decided to give him what he wanted: he put on a tape of the relentless disco hit "YMCA," set his stereo on automatic replay, turned it up full blast and left for the library, locking the door behind him. The dorm's resident adviser had to come to the rescue with a master key.

Life in fraternities and sororities can be even more inhospitable. "It would bother me if lesbians moved in," says senior Susie Burbidge, a Delta Gamma at Minnesota. "I wouldn't want them to join. It's real easy to be liberal when you don't have a lesbian living next door." One gay former Greek at Maryland tells of being "found out" by his brothers several years ago. They told him that if he didn't reveal his homosexuality to his parents, they would. He wouldn't. They did. His parents, he says, didn't talk to him for two years. At Dartmouth, Kappa Kappa Kappa caused a campuswide flap this winter when the members voted to depledge two gay students and force one member, junior Joel Thayer, to be listed as permanently inactive. The fraternity backed down after Thayer complained to Dartmouth officials.

But it isn't only fear of scorn from fellow students that keeps the majority of gays from declaring themselves. Many cite another reason: Mom and Dad. Some worry about the emotional havoc their disclosure might cause in the family. Others worry about financial support. "Jason" and "Sara" are friends and Berkeley freshmen. Both say that they are proud to be gay, but Jason is afraid that his father's girlfriend might persuade his father to stop paying tuition if she found out. Similarly, Sara worries that her grandmother would cut her off if she discovered that Sara is a lesbian.

The fear of familial repercussions even leads some activist gays to request anonymity when dealing with the public. A codirector of the Radcliffe Lesbian Association (who does not want to be identified in this story) regrets that she won't be able to list her RLA work on her grad-school application: "It's a shame given how much time I've put into it. But I know if they found out I'm a lesbian they'd hold it against me." Being publicly identified as a lesbian, she says, is like "being a member of the Communist Party. It will be used against you later in the real world."

Just like straight students, gays use the phrase "the real world" as shorthand for the mysterious life after college. For gays, though, there is an added element of uncertainty: how will they cope with the extra pressures? Most are aware that as unpleasant as things can sometimes be on campus, it is still a relatively safe place when compared to the outside. "Ours is a fairly supportive environment," says Harvard senior Michael Cote. "I don't worry about being gay here. But in the real world, as a gay man, I have to worry about it." A number of schools have organizations in place to help ease the transition. Gay student organizations exist at the Harvard law, business and divinity schools and the schools of law and business at Stanford. The recently formed Yale Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association has attracted 250 members so far just by word of mouth; the group's founder expects membership to double since it purchased a half-page ad in the February Yale alumni magazine. Under the aegis of the Boston Intercollegiate Lesbian and Gay Alliance, 75 student activists from 28 New England schools met at Harvard in February to exchange ideas and sharpen leadership skills.

For many gays on campus, though, the future remains a long step away. Here and now are the pressing concerns. The day after "Gay Liberation" was vandalized, members of the Stanford community began placing flowers at the site. People were still offering floral tributes there a week later when nearly 200 people, gays and straights, stood together in White Plaza to denounce the crime. Gay activists were not entirely reassured by the appearance of solidarity. The incident, said Gerard Koskovich of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance at Stanford, "was a strong indication of the degree to which gay men and lesbians remain vulnerable in this society." Koskovich and his colleagues knew that momentary expressions of support are one thing, but over the longer run any real political victories will be hard won. When the Stanford rally was over, the crowd went home. Pride had contested with prejudice -- and "Gay Liberation," battered, sat in a warehouse under wraps.

BILL BAROL with MARK MILLER in Dallas, TINA ESSEY in Palo Alto, Calif., ERIC GODCHAUX in Poughkeepsie, NY., RICH NADOLSKI in Northampton, Mass., JULIA REED in Washington, D.C., BARBARA MISLE in Ann Arbor, Mich., GARY GATELY in College Park, Md. and bureau reports.


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